Old World Charm keeps tourists and workers flocking to Alexandria

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Herb Strauss doesn’t have to do a lot of talking to persuade prospective employees to move to Alexandria.  To make his point, he describes the view from his office window at Robbins-Gioia, a global management consulting company.  “I am looking at a guy on a sailboat in the Potomac,” says Strauss, the company’s chief strategy and corporate development officer. “As I turn my head to the left, I see the U.S. Capitol, the Washington Monument and the Jefferson Memorial. For employees and their families, it’s a pretty exciting time in their lives to be here.”

Likewise, it is good time for Robbins-Gioia to be in Alexandria. Headquartered in the Canal Center Plaza in the city’s Old Town district, the company’s 600 consultants work with a who’s-who of government clients, including the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and the Defense Logistics Agency.

Alexandria is sometimes overshadowed by its neighbor across the Potomac, Washington, D.C., but it is far more than a bedroom suburb to the nation’s capital. The 261-year-old city has history, blocks of boutique shops, a thriving arts community and a well-educated population. The many amenities within Alexandria’s 14 square miles attract millions of tourists as well as new employees at Robbins-Gioia and other major employers.

Some newcomers are employees of the federal government, one of the primary reasons for the city’s prosperity. In addition to being near the District of Columbia, Alexandria is home to offices of many government agencies, including the Department of Commerce, Department of Defense and the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office. 

More federal employees could be on the way. More than 6,000 defense workers now housed in leased space in Arlington County are scheduled to relocate to 1.8 million square feet of office space in the twin, multi-story Mark Center office towers, which are expected to be finished by next September. The move, however, is now being reviewed because of the additional traffic it will create.

The city also is a popular spot for people who have business with the government. Kearney and Co., for example, works exclusively with government agencies. The financial services company has 450 employees working in the Edmonton Plaza in Old Town.

In addition, Alexandria is headquarters to some of the country’s biggest associations, such as the American Diabetes Association, Society of Human Resource Management, National Active and Retired Federal Employees Association and National Sheriffs’ Association.

The city’s largest private employer is the 318-bed Inova Alexandria Hospital, which has 1,800 workers. The hospital is part of Falls Church-based Inova Health System.
One of the newcomers finding opportunities in Alexandria is Christine Sennott, who relocated to the city from New Jersey in June. Now she draws on that experience as a relocation specialist for Century 21.

Her message to newcomers is that there is a lot more to living in Alexandria than a change of address. “Most relocation realtors have clients that stay focused on the job and how to get there,” Sennott says. “I created a business model around all that is in Alexandria with the social interactions, the culture and the political contacts available. That’s been my focus.”

While government plays an important role in Alexandria’s economy, tourism remains its No. 1 industry. About 3.3 million tourists spend $616 million in the city each year.

The biggest draw is the Old Town arts and entertainment district in the former seaport area. Tourists come to the district not only to stroll down cobblestone streets past 18th- and 19th-century buildings, but also to sample the goods of more than 90 high-end boutiques, restaurants and art shops selling everything from gourmet cheese and chocolates to original artworks. Despite the slow national economy, the district is booming. Thirty-four shops opened in 2010 alone.

But residents don’t want growth to harm Old Town’s character. “Maintaining that Old Town charm is something that residents are very adamant about,” says Ben Timashenka. He is general manager of the boutique-style Lorien Hotel and Spa and regional director of two other Kimpton property hotels renovated or built since 2007 in a 12-block area in Old Town. “Residents want a business in Old Town to have that feel and not modernize it. But they also see the success in business and shopping districts in Arlington, such as Clarendon and Rossyln, and they want that same sort of economic climate for
Old Town so it continues to be stable here.”

Aside from shopping, Alexandria offers a feast for history buffs. Established in 1749 as a seaport for nearby tobacco plantations, the city was home to Robert E. Lee and George Washington at certain points in their lives. As an aspiring surveyor in 1748, Washington sketched the Potomac shoreline where the city now stands to support his older brother’s petition to build a town.
Alexandria also was the site of one of the largest slave trading markets in the country until the Civil War. The first fatal shots of the war were fired in Alexandria in May 1861. (No one died in combat at Fort Sumter.) During a raid to occupy the city, a union colonel climbed the roof of a hotel and snatched down a Confederate flag that could be seen from the White House. As he was descending from the roof, the colonel was killed by the hotel proprietor, who was immediately shot to death by another Union soldier. Alexandria was occupied by Union forces for the duration of the war.

Commercial development
While protecting its heritage, Alexandria is not looking backward. The city is on a growth spurt and was named the fifth-fastest-growing city in the nation in 2009. Its estimated population of 145,772 in 2009 represented an increase of 13.6 percent from 2000.

The beginnings of the city’s recent commercial growth can be traced to the addition of the Metro King Street line in 1983, which led to the development of additional hotels and office buildings. The Metro station gave the city’s residents ready rail access to the Pentagon, Crystal City and Washington.

Commercial development today is at an all-time high. There is a new 3-mile development on the drawing boards designed to extend the look and feel of Old Town’s waterfront and create more commercial density. Those changes, however, could be regarded as a double-edged sword in a city that has been perceived as not particularly business friendly. “We do find resistance from the residents as far as change,” says Tina Leone, president and CEO of the Alexandria Chamber of Commerce. “But the fact is if we don’t start developing our commercial area and really accepting that we need businesses to support our economy now and in the future, our residential tax rates are going to go sky high.”

Strauss of Robbins-Gioia says city residents aren’t opposed to economic growth, but some types of business rub them the wrong way. Residents might object “if you are operating a materials business or something like that where you would have trucks operating through neighborhoods,” he says. “That’s where the difficulties lie.”

Commercial development outside of Old Town includes Potomac Yard, a 167-acre mixed-use development that anchors the east side of town. Potomac Yard, once a major East Coast railroad yard for the RF&P (Richmond, Fredericksburg and Potomac) Railroad, features some of the best-known retail chain stores in the country. (Potomac Yard was the proposed site of a new stadium for the Washington Redskins in the early 1990s. Those plans, however, were dropped because of local opposition.)

On the west side of the city is the regional Landmark Mall. The mall, which has been in decline for years, is now the under intense scrutiny of the Alexandria Economic Development Partnership (AEDP) and is slated for a big makeover. “It was planned for redevelopment about seven years ago, and then one of the major companies there went into bankruptcy,” says Stephanie Landrum, senior vice president of the Alexandria Economic Development Partnership. “Now that they have emerged from bankruptcy, we want to move forward with redevelopment. That is a major priority for us. It will become a catalyst for redevelopment in the western portion of Alexandria.”

While Alexandria works to provide more choices for shoppers, it already offers plenty of alternatives for dogs. The city has 17 dog parks, part of nearly 1,000 acres of park land.
In addition, Alexandria boasts 20 miles of biking and hiking trails leading to Arlington, Mount Vernon and Washington.

Adding to the city’s ambience is a thriving arts community. There are 82 artist studios and six art galleries at the Torpedo Factory Art Center in Old Town. And once again, the city’s location and ease of commute comes into play. “We came here because my husband works near the Pentagon,” Audrey Boobar, a home-based graphic designer, says. “And for me being an art major, it’s easy for me to jump on a train and go to the National Gallery to get inspiration and ideas.”

Education also plays a significant role in the city’s vibe. Nearly two-thirds of the adults residing in Alexandria have college degrees while 28.8 percent have graduate or professional degrees. The city has 36 private schools, some of which are ranked among the best in the country. One of them is Episcopal High School, Virginia’s first high school. Founded in 1839 as a boys preparatory school, its alumni include Virginius Dabney, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist; Gaston Caperton, a former West Virginia governor; and Arizona Sen. John McCain.

In addition, seven higher-education institutions offer classes in Alexandria, including Virginia Tech, George Washington University and Northern Virginia Community College. Another nine college campuses are within a dozen miles of the city.

“The city provides a very talented work force and is a very stable economy,” says Strauss, who moved to Alexandria in 2008. “The number of PhDs and the number of master’s degree holders and the talent they bring to our company really works in our favor.” 

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